Sunday, January 20, 2013

London Art Fair 2013

A trip to London Art Fair (in the snow) yielded some interesting results: two artists working with Willow Pattern. I have flagged up both of them before, but never seen them at the Art Fair.

First up: Robert Dawson, showing on the Axisweb stand in the 'Art Projects' area. I first came across Dawson's work in July 2010 when he was showing at Jerwood Space, although he has been working with the Willow Pattern since at least 1996. I didn't see this piece then; in Spin, Dawson alludes to the spinning used to make a plate – but the only spinning here was done on his computer, then transfer printed onto bone china. Lovely.

c Robert Dawson Spin (detail) 2010.

Spin as it was shown in the space

Second up: Paul Scottwho I discovered around the same time as Robert Dawson and who was part of the offering at Brighton gallery ink-d, who specialise in mostly urban/street art and were positioned on the mezzanine floor.

Hard to ignore on ink-d's stand was "artivist" (art activist) Carrie Reichardt aka The Baroness with her large politically slanted mosaics.

In the prestigious section on the ground floor near the entrance was Millennium Gallery showing German artist Caro Suerkemper who was working in porcelain and blue and white with an erotic narrative.

Meanwhile, back up in the Art Project space, Woolff Gallery were showing this by Keith Haynes. Not blue and white of course, but I mention it because I was cutting out vinyl records in 1997.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Emma Biggs Mosaic

Back in November 2012, I was preparing my application for Goldsmiths MFA. It was a mammoth task to explain why on earth I wanted to do the course, and to describe my work in terms of critical discourse. I couldn't simply say "I want to be taken seriously, and I want to make full use of the workshop facilities and technicians because I can't afford to do half the things I want to do otherwise."

I got an email last week to say I'd been unsuccessful.

As part of my preparations I looked through my favourite art books. One of those books was Matthew Colling's Art Crazy Nation. It seemed rather dated (it was published in 2001) and I wondered what he had been writing about recently. Google led me to Biggs & Collings where I found the above piece by Emma Biggs.

Not being part of the art world's social network, I had no idea they operated as a couple making paintings together, or that his wife works with mosaics – particularly with found fragments.

At Emma's own website ( I came across her project Made in England. "The Made in England mosaic is a celebration of the Stoke-On-Trent ceramics industry and its history. The mosaic incorporates a range of fragments displaying back-stamps and potters marks, representing a wealth of stories and workmanship."

There is a website for Made In England which describes the project and is now an online resource about backstamps (or 'makers' marks'). Here are some extracts from the About section:
'Made in England’ is a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council. It was conceived by the artist and mosaicist Emma Biggs, but involves the skills, knowledge and generous participation of numerous individuals. It is both a historical record and a demonstration of how signs and symbols influence our understanding of familiar objects and inform how we think today. (...)
(...) Ceramic tableware, the cups, plates and saucers we use every day, is unusual in one respect – each piece bears an identifying mark which tells a story. Although people may have noticed the marks on plates, they are not generally given a second thought, unless it relates to the rarity of the piece and its financial value. Marks are designed to be overlooked, they are on the bottom of plates because the important aspect is on the top – the decoration – but there is a fascinating story to be told from looking at the overlooked, the things we simply take for granted. This project aims to do both aspects of what art should do – namely make us re-examine a familiar aspect of our lives and see it in a new way. It should also be visually compelling.

Made in England begins where industrially produced ceramic began: in the pottery towns of Stoke-on-Trent. An art work in mosaic is to be installed in the entrance to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, which houses a collection of ceramic of international importance, and receives visitors from all over the world.

The marks on the backs of plates – known in the trade as ‘backstamps’ – inadvertently convey a social history of England, and ways in which the English have seen themselves, encompassing technology, classicism, empire, nationhood and the pastoral. The name of the project is taken from these stamps. Ceramic was not marked with the country of manufacture until the nineteenth century. (...)

(...) The plates we will use will not be ones of enormous financial value – it is the fact that the art work draws our attention to a story told by everyday things, accessible and familiar to us all, that gives it its aspect of surprise.

Ultimately the aim of the project is to look at the everyday in a local, a national and an international context. The products of the ceramic industry have a particular meaning to the community of Stoke-on-Trent, thousands of whom have spent their entire working lives in the industry, and many of whom have recently been made redundant as the industry contracts under pressure from the more competitively priced products of the Far East – particularly China.

But curiously the highly skilled workforce is not alone in being displaced by the retooled Chinese industrial giants – the traditional Chinese ceramic towns are also withering, and there are fruitful and supportive links between the two communities. The history of ceramic, more familiarly known as ‘china’, is one which cannot be seen simply in a national context: the word tells you about a trading history.

The first part of this project will be in Stoke, the second will be in the London Underground, and the third will take the project to China.
Emma also writes about the project on her blog. She describes how she came to use ready-made pottery as a mosaic material but found the decorative elements too distracting, so decided to use the maker's marks instead. "The backstamps did what contemporary art seeks to do – they woke me up to new meanings residing in something intensely familiar. These plates – objects we all live with every day – were loaded with all sorts of contradictory and fascinating cultural assumptions (...) Contemporary art is about meaning. It attempts to expose our place in relation to pervasive ideologies of which most of us are only dimly aware...the quest to reveal something new, true and overlooked is what distinguishes it from decoration."
© Emma Biggs – Six roundels from Made in England, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent
"Empire, victories at war, aristocracy (...) once I started to look, I saw it wasn't a story of power alone, but also gave a narrative of the relatively powerless, the people who worked in the potteries – or 'potbanks' as they are known in Stoke. There were batch numbers, and thumbprints, and tests of the brush, made by the 'paintresses' (...) There was a story of technological change (hand painted and underglazed versus 'dishwasher and microwave friendly)."

Emma did what I have failed to do: go to Stoke and meet the people.

In this post, she talks about how Stoke is now among the poorest cities in the UK as the industries based there have been decimated. In the following post, she describes how she got the community involved.

"As the project depended on public involvement, it was essential that as many people as possible knew about it. I contacted local TV, radio and the press. I appealed for pottery fragments and invited anyone interested to get involved. I went to public events — fairs and meetings, and circulated information. I visited clubs (I even went to a Rotary Club lunch). I alerted NORSACA — the North Staffordshire African Caribbean Association, and the local Racial Equality Council. The project was made part of the coursework for second year students from the University of North Staffordshire.  I spoke and held classes at primary and secondary schools. UNITY — the Trade Union — bulletined their members alerting them to the appeal."

She publicised the project with a series of postcards designed by George Walker and Catherine Nippe, which used words and phrases particular to the ceramics industry and well known in Stoke. On the back was an invitation to contribute along with contact details.

© Emma Biggs – postcards from Made in England

My favourite detail from the main Made In England piece is this one with the paintresses' marks:

© Emma Biggs – detail from Made in England

A Cup of Tea

Martin Parr photographs everyday life...this image is from a Tate greetings card.

Just before Christmas I was invited by Deptford X's Matthew Couper to take part in an Art in Shops scheme he was curating in Peckham (I Art Peckham Shops, part of Peckham Space), which ran from 15th Dec to 6th Jan.

It was suggested I put my work in a greasy spoon cafe, Cafe Como. When I visited the cafe owner and asked him if he would like to use Willow Pattern to serve his breakfasts and lunches on instead of his usual crockery, and maybe put up a couple of pieces on the wall, he turned me down. He didn't want to change what he had on the walls, or have anything interfere with his imminent Xmas decorations, and was more interested in another offer to have an artist "dressed as a Victorian lady" sat in the front window for a day who would write notes on passers by.

According to the I Art Peckham Shops Facebook page, the artist who exhibited in Cafe Como was Sally Hogarth. Can't really find much more info on this. But maybe the reason the cafe owner didn't like my idea was because he'd had a look at my website and seen what I did to the crockery in Creekery.

c Sue Lawes, Creekery #1 at Ha'Penny Hatch, September 2010 (photo: Charles Shearer)

See all posts on this blog about Creekery #1.
See all posts about Creekery #2.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Adding to the collection

At Christmas, my sister gave me both a Christmas present and belated birthday present – two pieces of Willow ware to add to my collection. Both are Doulton, Burslem.